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DCS moves with the times

20 September 2021

Suzanne Gill reports on changing DCS technology which is being adapted to meet the need for more agile production. 

In the past, making a process control choice might have tied a company into the same distributed control system (DCS) technology solution for decades. The scalability and flexibility of traditional DCS systems meant that customers needed to engage for long periods to ensure proper return on investment (ROI) of an often significant investment and this would tie them into a solution.

Offering an explanation as to why some companies had no choice but to do this, Alain Hermans, process control program manager, EMEA at Rockwell Automation, points out that, in the past the use of PLC/SCADA solutions were not recommended for use in some industry sectors, so for many a DCS was the only solution. 

“More recently, with the globalisation of consumer markets there is a growing need for increased production flexibility, alongside CAPEX/OPEX reductions,” said Hermans, and this has resulted in the creation of more scalable and open control systems solutions.

“We are seeing cycles getting shorter and this is driving manufacturers to manage their plant/asset lifecycle in a more pro-active manner,” continued Hermans.  “To reduce the risk of production losses due to obsolescence, manufacturers and processors are now planning migration budgets as part of their business plans.” 

The NAMUR specifications are helping achieve this as they have lessened the need to commit to a single vendor’s control technology, thanks to the MTP (Module Type Package) standards, which demand a vendor neutral and functional description of the process module automation that can be generated by the engineering tool of the module.

So, going forward, how can engineers ensure that their process control assets are future-proofed and have greater flexibility? Hermans believes that industry is driving towards greater standardisation throughout multiple plants and process skids and there is a need to allow the engineering community to quickly adjust systems and add process equipment or modify the DCS system to meet production changes. The solution to help achieve such production flexibility requires an open system which comes with process functionality that enables high levels of standardisation, but without limiting the engineers to adopt the system to the application requirements or future integration of new process equipment. 

High-end analytics and Augmented Reality (AR) are also useful tools that can be added into today’s process control offerings to enable process engineers to review plant functionality before it is created physically, and to give valuable insight into production processes to allow changes to be made to ensure productivity is always maximised.

An ideal world
In an idea world engineers simply want their control systems to work and to be available 24/7/365. They don’t want to build, integrate, troubleshoot and maintain their automation; they want it to just work. 

Sean Sims, vice president of DeltaV platform marketing at Emerson, believes that technology alone is not the answer to more flexible and efficient production. He said: “A strong partnership between customer and automation supplier is required for automation to ‘just work’ and add sustainable value to operations over the long-term. We have seen many facilities that have advanced process control, sophisticated alarm management, and state-of-the-art asset management capabilities, yet the opportunity to use this technology to improve safety, compliance and production, is often under-utilised.

“While new technology makes it possible for companies to change control system technologies more frequently, that doesn’t mean they should take this step,” argues Sims. “Today, we are seeing a trend for companies to invest fewer resources into maintaining automation and instead to ask suppliers to manage everything – from equipment sensors to full control systems and digital twins. I believe that in the coming decade we will see manufacturers making many changes to ensure their production lines become more agile, and that will require strong automation technology partnerships. Very few internal manufacturing organisations have the resources to meet production goals and strategically follow fast-changing technology trends. Indeed, trying to achieve that can leave plants focused on tactical maintenance instead of business goals.” 

Sims believes that, rather than relying on transactional interactions for automation, a better solution is to leverage partnerships to create a long-term sustainable control system plan. “With a strong plan companies can better navigate the time, effort and costs associated with change,” he concluded.

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